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Adobe Photoshop Touch for Phone review: More than quick filters and fixes for photos

When you want more than quick filters and fixes for your photos, Photoshop Touch for Phone is your next stop.

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Lori Grunin
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Lori Grunin

Senior Editor / Reviews

I've been writing about and reviewing consumer technology since before the turn of the century. I'm also a photographer and cat herder, frequently at the same time.

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4 min read

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In a lot of ways I agree with the sarcastic comment by "turrrible_turrrible" on my writeup of the Photoshop Touch for Phone announcement: "Every time I use Photoshop I wish it was on a much smaller screen with less features!" That (worded differently) was my initial reaction when briefed about the software, along with visions of my fat-fingeredness on the tablet version translating to utter frustration when trying to operate the program on a pint-size screen. Surprisingly, I experienced only a few of the expected frustrations, but still, some operations just don't translate well from tablet to phone, and feature weaknesses from the tablet version persist here.

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7.5

Adobe Photoshop Touch for Phone

The Good

<b>Photoshop Touch for Phone</b> offers a robust feature set for small-scale image editing and compositing.

The Bad

As with every first iteration, there are instabilities, bugs, and performance issues, and some aspects of the interface just don't translate well to the small screen.

The Bottom Line

If you're looking for something beyond simple photo retouching and filtering for your late-model phone, Photoshop Touch hits the mark, but look at user reviews before you leap.

PT for Phone has the same robust set of editing and compositing features as the tablet version, including adjustments and filters; warping, transforming, and adding text; brushes; selection and extraction tools; cloning; and layers and blending. You can shoot a photo directly into a layer. Output formats are JPEG or PNG, a flattened Photoshop PSD, or the native PS Touch PSDX format -- this last format can be opened by Photoshop CS5.5 or CS6 as long as you've got the appropriate patch installed. Sharing options tend to be governed by the API limitations of the operating system and the other apps you've got installed, so your mileage may vary there.

Keep in mind that this isn't a slap-a-filter-on-it or quick-retouch-and-upload app; if that's all you need, then there are far better and cheaper choices. In fact, while Photoshop Touch's selection of effects is passable, it doesn't offer nearly the breadth or depth of filters that more dedicated apps offer. But PT allows you to combine multiple photos with blend modes and complex selections along with all the essential retouching and correction capabilities. The app supports images up to 12 megapixels, and the number of layers you can create depends upon the image size: only three if you're maxed out on pixels, but increasing to as many as 16 layers as you shrink the resolution.

Photoshop Touch for phone offers the same set of tools and similar interface as the tablet version, but laid out slightly differently to accommodate the smaller screen. Screenshot by Lori Grunin/CNET

I tested it on a Samsung Galaxy Camera, which according to the Play Store isn't supported. (I'm still waiting to find out from Adobe why that is.) Installing directly from the APK file seemed to work fine, though I did experience some of the same stability problems that others reported in the Play Store -- specifically, occasional freezes that required a Force Stop and restart. Performance, however, was pretty snappy. I suggest that before buying you scan user reviews to ensure there are no known problems for your specific device.

Some of the menus take up the entire display in landscape orientation. Screenshot by Lori Grunin/CNET

One of the most notable differences between the tablet interface and the phone interface -- aside from the necessary rearrangement of the tools -- is the switch to a less interactive and somewhat insufficient help system. There are only five topics with only the briefest of instruction, and nowhere does it tell you what each tool does. While most people familiar with image-editing tools and techniques will probably quickly pick up the app's operation, certain things might still elude you. For instance, after making selections with the Scribble Selection tool (see my coverage of the tablet app), where you doodle over what to keep and what to delete, not everyone will know to then go to the selection menu and look for Extract. Instead, they'll probably do what I did: choose Cut. But Cut doesn't understand the scribbled Keep and Remove areas, and actually deletes the inverse of what you've selected.

I also find the traditional "marching ants" type of selection display completely unsuited to phone-size screens. In places it's impossible to make out the border, requiring a lot of tedious zooming in and out to tweak the selection. It's easier to see if you go into Refine Edge, which overlays a red mask, but overall I think we need a new interface metaphor for handling selections on small screens.

Marching-ant-type selection displays don't scale well down to small sizes. (Actual size)
Marching-ant-type selection displays don't scale well down to small sizes. (Actual size) Screenshot by Lori Grunin/CNET

Furthermore, a lot of the things missing from the tablet version are still missing or insufficient. Like one-click white balance. There's a temperature slider, at least, but it doesn't preview in real-enough time, and there's no visual (for example, red to blue) or Kelvin reference -- what the heck is a -2 percent change in color temperature? Is that warmer or cooler? This is UI design 101, folks.

And working with text is annoying. You can enter, place, resize, and rotate text using one of the handful of included fonts. But once you click apply, it rasterizes the text. And the bundled fonts? A crime against typography. Given that Adobe possesses a type foundry and decades of type-rendering experience, you'd think we'd get something better than display faces like Cottonwood and Mesquite, and otherwise nice body faces that are totally unsuited to most of what you'd be doing with the app. Plus, given the audience for the product -- advanced users -- I'm surprised there's no quick watermarking tool.

Why do the font gods hate us? Screenshot by Lori Grunin/CNET

While I understand the necessity of drawing a line in the operating-system sand, the fact that Photoshop Touch operates only on Android 4.0 or higher is a bit of a disappointment, since as of this writing only roughly half of users are running a compatible version (very roughly, since the reported numbers are for all devices, not just phones). On the Apple side, it requires iOS 5 or later, plus an iPhone 4S/fifth-generation iPod Touch or newer.

It's a full-featured image-editing app, with modern selection tools, brushes, adjustments, effects, warps, and gradients. And though it seems nitpicky to complain about such things for what's a very neat technological achievement, Adobe's charging you $4.99 per device, on top of any subscription fees you're probably already paying for Creative Cloud. Yes, the app is cool and useful, but the interface still needs some work.